NO WONDER all connected with Hearts wore a haunted look at full-time in Dingwall yesterday.
Scorers: Ross County - De Leeuw (89), Brittain (90); Hearts - Paterson (24)
Bookings: Ross County - Gordon, Carey; Hearts - McHattie, Hamill
The fate that befell them in the final three minutes represents the sort of catastrophe that could knock the stuffing out of a fragile young side.
That fragility was exposed brutally with the headed goals from Melvin De Leeuw and Richie Brittain that allowed Ross County to conjure a win out of nothing.
The victory that Hearts largely looked good for in the hour that
followed Calum Paterson’s opener – by being marginally less humdrum than their hosts, it must be said – would have been stamped with a hallmark.
Until the encounter was turned utterly on its head, it seemed as if they were set to put two defeats behind them and move to within six points of the floundering St Mirren and further chip away at the 15 point penalty for their on-going insolvency event. “It is a real sore one,” Hearts manager Gary Locke acknowledged. “At 1-0 I thought we were really comfortable and I couldn’t see them scoring. The heads are down in there, that’s for sure but we just have to pick ourselves up and go again.”
Locke cursed the brilliance of keeper Mark Brown in diving full-length to push a way a pearler of a drive from Jason Holt midway through the second half.
“That would have killed it,” he said. What did kill it in the most dramatic fashion was Richard Brittain slinging in a right-wing cross two minutes from normal time that substitute De Leeuw, only introduced in the 72nd minute, got between two markers to nod in at the back post.
The roles were then reversed for Brittain to send a looping header beyond Jamie MacDonald, the Dutchman chipping the ball in from the left.
“We should have defended the crosses better,” Locke said of goals that came too easily for a hitherto blunt County side.
“We let the crosses come in too easily. And when they did we didn’t defend them well enough.”
A bit more experience in his ranks might have allowed his team to “see the game out”, Locke accepted, but he wasn’t in the mood to trot out “excuses”.
In that respect, he left the flannel to Dingwall counterpart Derek Adams. He has taken over the Kenny Shiels’ mantle of cock-eyed match reviewing.
His assessment of a get-out-of-jail win was contrary to say the least.
“I thought we played very well again,” he claimed. The “again” a reference to an, err, 4-2 loss to Dundee United the previous week.
“Over the 90 minutes we were the better side and I don’t know how we were 1-0 down. Over the 90 minutes only one team deserved to win, and that is taking nothing away from a good young Hearts side.”
The football from both teams was laboured and bitty, but Hearts had the odd moment more when they lifted the quality. The prime example was their goal.
The cross that Kevin McHattie delivered from the right was sumptuous. It had whip and curl and the only requirement from Paterson was to apply a touch, a deft volley sending it low into the net from four yards out. County created a few goalmouth scrambles and drew saves from Jamie MacDonald in the second period but they didn’t look like finding a cutting edge until De Leeuw arrived on the scene.
The finale he inspired was a lesson in keeping on keeping on.
He said: “It was a very nice last five minutes and lovely to do something for the group and something for myself. It showed if you are to be beaten it is only when the ref’s whistle signs.”
Yesterday, it sounded a mighty sad lament for Hearts.